March 29, 1972
I received a letter from Y.L. You remember, last year she came to ask you Malraux's question about Bangladesh – Malraux wanted to participate in the struggle for Bangladesh. You told her to tell him he would have the answer when he came to India ...
... He never came to India. He dropped his project after meeting Indira Gandhi [in Paris].
Yes, since India was officially going to war in Bangladesh, he didn't think there was any more reason for him to get killed... on the official side. So instead of going to Bangladesh, he went to the United States to meet Nixon.
Well, anyway, Y.L.'s idea is to get Malraux to participate in Sri Aurobindo's Centenary. You know that for years I've been trying to interest Malraux in Sri Aurobindo's thought, I wrote him the first time ten or fifteen years ago. And here's what Y.L. writes to me:
“...Malraux again and again! In your last letter, at the end of December, you wrote, ‘He could be the herald of the new world.’ Invited by Nixon, he obeyed the outward call. Now remains the return journey via India and Bangladesh. This morning I received a copy of your speech on the Delhi radio. I immediately sent it to Malraux....”
She means my article “Sri Aurobindo and the Earth's Future.” Then, a few days later, I received a second letter from Y.L., in which she says:
“This morning I received the enclosed reply. Please read it to Mother. I leave it to you to decide what should be done now. I have not informed A. [‘Sri Aurobindo Study Center’ in Paris]. Your article on ‘Sri Aurobindo and the Earth's Future’ is what has won his support....”
Malraux agrees to be a member of the Centenary Committee. His secretary sent the following reply to Y.L.:
March 13, 1972
... Monsieur Andre Malraux is traveling abroad and is not expected back before April 15, but he has asked me to request you to tell the Mother that he is at her entire disposal for anything concerning the Committee, and that he considers it an honor.
Oh, that's good!
We will have to speak with A.
It's good. Very good.1
Satprem's letter to Andre Malraux,
seventeen years earlier.
(In an interview in a Swedish magazine, Malraux had said, “For the last fifty years, psychology has been reinstating the demons in man. Such is the real result of psychoanalysis. Faced as we are with the most frightening threat humanity has ever known, I believe that the task of the next century will be to reinstate the gods in man.”)
August 2, 1955
Dear Mr. Malraux,
Your reply to the questions of a Swedish magazine regarding “whether religions have in fact promoted the conditions of tolerance and understanding among men” happened to fall into my hands just as I have started giving a series of lectures on your works at the “International University Center” of Sri Aurobindo Ashram. This coincidence, along with a long-standing familiarity with your books, prompt me to write you a few words about another testimony, that of Sri Aurobindo, which I am sure you are aware of, but whose work, still incompletely translated in French, remains poorly known in Europe.
I seem to find in Sri Aurobindo's work an answer that meets yours and develops it – for the question is indeed to “reinstate the gods IN man” after having reinstated the demons, as you rightly stated in the Swedish article – but I also find there an answer to the agonizing question constantly raised by your characters from The Royal Way to The Walnut Trees of Altenburg. Indeed, all of them seek a “deeper notion in man” that will deliver them from death and solitude – this is THE question of the West, to which Sri Aurobindo brings a solution at once dynamic and illuminating. Hence, I am taking the liberty of sending by surface mail one of Sri Aurobindo's books in the original English entitled The Human Cycle. I hope it will interest you.
I call on you rather than any other contemporary writer because I think your works embody the very anguish of the West, an anguish I have bitterly experienced all the way to the German concentration camps at the age of twenty, and then in a long and uneasy wandering around the world. Insofar as I have always turned to you, daring and searching with each of your characters what “surpasses” man, I am again turning to you because I have a feeling that, more than anyone else, you can understand Sri Aurobindo's message and perhaps draw a new impetus from it. I am also thinking of a whole generation of young people who expect much from you: more than an ideal of pure heroism, which only opens the doors (as does all self-offering) on another realm of man we have yet to explore, and more than a fascination with death, which also is only a means and not an end, although its brutal nakedness can sometimes open a luminous breach in the bodily prison – where we seem to have been immured alive – and we emerge into a new dimension of our being. For we tend too often to forget that it is “for living” that your heroes think so constantly of death; also I think that the young people I mentioned want the truth of Tchen and Katow, the truth of Hernandez, Perken and Moreno [characters in Malraux's novels] beyond their death.
It may seem strange to speak of you in an Indian Ashram that one would consider far removed from the world and the agonizing problems and struggles of the “Human Condition,” but as a matter of fact Sri Aurobindo's Ashram is concerned with this earthly life; it wants to transform it instead of fleeing it as all traditional Indian and Western religions do, forever proclaiming that “His kingdom is not of this world.” Knowing that there exists a fundamental reality beyond man, religions have focussed on that other realm to find the key to man just as your heroes focus on their death to discover the fundamental reality that will be able to “stand” in the face of death. But religion has not justified this life, except as a transition toward a Beyond which is supposedly the supreme goal; and your heroes – though so close to life's throbbing heart that at times it seems to explode and reveal its poignant secret – finally plunge into death, as if to free themselves from an Absolute they cannot live in the flesh.
The young Indian students with whom I discuss your books understand perhaps better than Westerners the reason for all those bloody and apparently useless sacrifices – the torments conflicts and revolts of your heroes condemned to death, the great Hunger that drives them beyond themselves – for they know that these are like the contractions of childbirth, and that the thick shell of egoism, routine, conformism, intellectual and sentimental habits must be broken for the inner Divine to transpierce the surface of this life – for the Divine is indeed WITHIN man, and life harbors its own hidden justification. Echoing the Upanishad, Sri Aurobindo tells us that “The earth is His foothold.” He also wrote, “God is not only in the still small voice, but in the fire and the whirlwind.”
I think I am correctly interpreting the feeling of my young Indian friends when I say that they see the heroes of your novels as “raw mystics,” to use Claudel's description of Rimbaud. This may seem a surprising attribute, considering your heroes' atheism, but that is because we have too often confused mysticism or spirituality with religion, as Sri Aurobindo stresses. One need not believe in a personal, extracosmic God to be a mystic. (That is certainly why religion has from time to time taken upon itself to bum alive all the “non-regular” mystics.) Here we touch upon a huge confusion rooted in religions. Through their monks, sannyasins and ascetics, religions have shown us a purely contemplative, austere and lifeless side of mysticism – indeed those mystics, like the religions they practice, live in a negation of life; they go through this “vale of tears” with their eyes exclusively fixed on the Beyond. But true mysticism is not so limited as that, it seeks to transform life, to reveal the Absolute hidden in it; it seeks to establish “the kingdom of God in man,” as Sri Aurobindo wrote, “and not the kingdom of a Pope, clergy or sacerdotal class.” If the modem world lives in conflict and anguish, if it is torn between “being” and “doing,” it is because religion has driven away God from this world, severed him from his creation and flung him back to some distant heaven or empty nirvana, thus denying any possibility of human perfection on this earth and digging an unbridgeable gulf between being and doing, between mystics sunk in their dreams and this world abandoned to the forces of evil, to Satan and all those who consent to “get their hands dirty.”
That contradiction is powerfully expressed in your books, it is striking to my Indian students. And they are surprised, for the urge to “do” something at all costs – “to do anything at all, as long as we do something,” as one often hears in Europe – without this action being based on a “being” which it expresses and of which it is but the material translation, appears to them a strange attitude. Neither the despair, the silence or the revolt, nor the absurd pointlessness that sometimes surrounds the death of many of your heroes escape them. They feel that your heroes flee from themselves rather than express themselves. This torment between “being” and “doing” can be found in each one of them. They have apparently renounced to “be” something in order to “do” something, as one character stresses in Hope, but are they not desperately seeking to “be” through their actions, a “being” that they will capture only as time is abolished, in death? The same obsession seems to run through each of them: from Perken, who wants to “leave his scar on the map,” to “outlive himself through twenty tribes,” who fights against time as one fights against cancer, to Tchen, who shuts himself in the world of terrorism: “an eternal world where time does not exist,” and to Katow, who whispers to himself, “O prisons, where time stops.” In that respect, these characters clearly symbolize the impotence of a religion that has not been able to give the earth its meaning and plenitude.
To the question raised by the Swedish magazine and to the one many characters in your books ask themselves, I believe that Sri Aurobindo and his vast synthesis bring the key to a reconciliation and long-sought answer, a reconciliation between being and doing, which religion is incapable of supplying. “Through our Yoga,” Sri Aurobindo wrote, “we propose nothing less than to break totally the past and present formations which make up the ordinary mental and material man and create a new centre of vision, a new universe of activities in ourselves, which will form a divine humanity or a superhuman nature.” This is not an “idea” but an experience to be lived, which Sri Aurobindo has minutely described in his extensive body of works. It is what some thousand men and women from all over the world are trying to do at the Pondicherry Ashram.
In your reply to the Swedish magazine, you emphasize, “The major obstacle to tolerance is not agnosticism but Manichaeism.” That is also why religions will never be able to unite humanity, because they have remained Manichaean in their principle, because they are founded on morality, on a sense of good and evil, necessarily varying from one country to the next. Religions will not reconcile men with one another any more than they have reconciled men with themselves, or reconciled their aspiration to “be” with their need for action – and for the same reasons, for in both cases they have dug an abyss between an ideal good, a “being” they have relegated to heaven, and an evil, a “becoming,” which reigns supreme in a world where “all is vanity.” I would like to quote here a passage from Sri Aurobindo's Essays on the Gita which throws a clear light on the problem: “To put away the responsibility for all that seems to us evil or terrible on the shoulders of a semi-omnipotent Devil, or to put it aside as part of Nature, making an unbridgeable opposition between world-nature and God-Nature, as if Nature were independent of God, or to throw the responsibility on man and his sins, as if he had a preponderant voice in the making of this world or could create anything against the will of God, are clumsily comfortable devices in which the religious thought of India has never taken refuge. We have to look courageously in the face of the reality and see that it is God and none else who has made this world in his being and that so he has made it. We have to see that Nature devouring her children, Time eating up the lives of creatures, Death universal and ineluctable and the violence of the Rudra forces in man and Nature are also the supreme Godhead in one of his cosmic figures. We have to see that God the bountiful and prodigal creator, God the helpful, strong and benignant preserver is also God the devourer and destroyer. The torment of the couch of pain and evil on which we are racked is his touch as much as happiness and sweetness and pleasure. It is only when we see with the eye of the complete union and feel this truth in the depths of our being that we can entirely discover behind that mask too the calm and beautiful face of the all-blissful Godhead and in this touch that tests our imperfection the touch of the friend and builder of the spirit in man. The discords of the worlds are God's discords and it is only by accepting and proceeding through them that we can arrive at the greater concords of his supreme harmony.”2 I believe that the characters of your books would not be seeking sacrifice and death so intensely if they did not feel the side of light and joy behind the mask of darkness in which they so passionately lose themselves.
Sri Aurobindo has constantly stressed that, through progressive evolutionary cycles, humanity must go beyond the purely ethical and religious stage, just as it must go beyond the infrarational and rational stage, in order to reach a new “spiritual and suprarational age” – otherwise we will simply remain doomed to the upheavals, conflicts and bloody sacrifices that shake our times, “for living according to a code of morality is always a tragedy,” as one of the characters in Hope notes.
The tragedies we are experiencing – communism, Nazism – are not rooted, as the Swedish magazine implies, in the weakening or disappearance of religion, it is religion itself which is the source of the disequilibrium insofar as it is fossilized in dogmas, as it clings to a power it possesses in a human cycle drawing to its close, and as it refuses to open itself to a “new deeper notion in man” which would at long last reconcile heaven and earth. As a result, men go elsewhere to seek what religion is unable to provide: in communism or any other “ism,” so great and persistent is their thirst for the Absolute – for that abides under one name or another and that very thirst is the surest sign of a fullness to come.
At this crucial juncture in human evolution, Sri Aurobindo brings a luminous message to which I hope to draw your attention through this letter and the book I am taking the liberty of sending you. I think the youth of Europe have a profound need to hear a great voice that would bring them face to face with their fundamental truths; none can, better than you, touch that youth and awaken the anguished Occident.
I deeply hope, Sir, that Sri Aurobindo's works will be a new source of inspiration for you.
With my best and most considerate regards,
(Andre Malraux's reply)
August 10, 1955
Your letter keenly interested me. I am familiar – relatively of course – with the works of Sri Aurobindo (whom I met by chance a long time ago, without any exchange of words...), but I did not know the book you are kind enough to send me, and which I look forward to receiving.
I agree – as you have seen – with your main thesis. But the text in question (the reply to a specific inquiry) was limited in its very scope.
Thank you again, and with sincere regards.
1 Unfortunately, nothing came of it. The narrow-mindedness of the Paris “Study Center” discouraged Malraux once and for all. The bridge that Y.L. and Satprem had so painstakingly built since 1955 with Satprem's first letter to Malraux was instantly shattered. Strange how on all sides Mother was surrounded by such a global incomprehension of the deep significance of the History, as if all this were merely a parochial story, or even an “ashram” story. For the record, we publish in the Addendum Satprem's first letter to Malraux in 1955, along with Malraux's reply.
2 Essays on the Gita, XIII.367-368.